The battle to save Iraq's
Doctors issue plea to Tony Blair to end the scandal of
medical shortages in the war zone
By Colin Brown, Deputy Political Editor
Independent" -- -- The desperate plight of children
who are dying in Iraqi hospitals for the lack of simple
equipment that in some cases can cost as little as 95p
is revealed today in a letter signed by nearly 100
They are backed by a group of international lawyers, who
say the conditions in hospitals revealed in their letter
amount to a breach of the Geneva conventions that
require Britain and the US as occupying forces to
protect human life.
In a direct appeal to Tony Blair, the doctors describe
desperate shortages causing "hundreds" of children to
die in hospitals. The signatories include Iraqi doctors,
British doctors who have worked in Iraqi hospitals, and
leading UK consultants and GPs.
"Sick or injured children who could otherwise be treated
by simple means are left to die in hundreds because they
do not have access to basic medicines or other
resources," the doctors say. "Children who have lost
hands, feet and limbs are left without prostheses.
Children with grave psychological distress are left
untreated," they add.
They say babies are being ventilated with a plastic tube
in their noses and dying for want of an oxygen mask,
while other babies are dying because of the lack of a
phial of vitamin K or sterile needles, all costing about
95p. Hospitals have little hope of stopping fatal
infections spreading from baby to baby because of the
lack of surgical gloves, which cost about 3.5p a pair.
Among those who have signed the letter are Chris
Burns-Cox, a consultant physician at Gloucester Royal
Hospital; Dr Maggie Wright, the director of intensive
care at James Page University Hospital; Professor Debbie
Lawlor, professor of epidemiology and public health at
University College London; Professor George Davey Smith,
professor of clinical epidemiology at Bristol
university; Dr Philip Wilson, senior clinical research
fellow at Glasgow University; and Dr Heba al-Naseri, who
has experienced the conditions in Iraqi hospitals. Dr
al-Naseri, who has worked at Diwaniyah Maternity
Hospital and the Diwaniyah University Hospital,
describes in harrowing detail what the conditions were
like for a newborn baby - one of the lucky ones who
survived - called Amin.
"Amin had to be fed powdered milk, diluted with tap
water. There wasn't enough money to buy expensive
formula milk or bottled water - their price had risen
above the increase in wages since 2003. The problems
with the intermittent electricity and gas supply meant
regular boiled water could not be guaranteed. With the
dormant waste and sewage disposal systems,
drinking-water is more likely to be contaminated," he
Cases the doctors highlight include a child who died
because the doctor only had a sterile needle for an
adult and could not find a needle small enough to fit
the vein, and another child who died because the doctors
had no oxygen mask that fitted.
The doctors say the UK, as one of the occupying powers
under UN resolution 1483, has to comply with the Geneva
and Hague conventions that require the UK and the US to
"maintain order and to look after the medical needs of
the population". But, the doctors say: "This they failed
to do and the knock-on effect of this failure is
affecting Iraqi children's hospitals with increasing
They call on the UK to account properly for the $33bn
(?16.7bn) in the development fund for Iraq which should
have supplied the means for hospitals to treat children
properly. They say more than half of the money - $14bn -
is believed to have vanished through corruption, theft
and payments to mercenaries.
They say that all revenues from Iraq's oil exports
should now pass directly to the Iraqi people and that
illegal contracts entered into by the Coalition
Provisional Authority be revoked.
Their letter was supported by experts in international
law, including Harvey Goldstein, professor of social
statistics at the University of Bristol, and Bill
Bowring, a barrister and professor of law at Birkbeck
Nicholas Wood, an architect who helped to organise the
protest, said they had evidence on film of dead babies
being dumped in cardboard boxes. "In one hospital, there
were three babies to an incubator. The incubators are 36
years old and are held together by tape and a bit of
wire. They are wrecks. They cost about ?5,000 each, but
that is nothing to compared to the cost of a missile,"
The letter was sent to Downing Street via Hilary Benn,
the International Development Secretary, by his
predecessor, Clare Short.
A system in meltdown
* Save the Children estimate that 59 in 1,000 newborn
babies are dying in Iraq, one of the highest mortality
rates in the world. Thousands of infants are dying
because of the lack of basic cheap equipment. In
Diwaniyah hospital, south of Baghdad, one doctor had to
try to ventilate a baby with a plastic tube in its nose
because he lacked an oxygen mask costing just 95p. The
* In the same hospital, a baby with a rare illness
causing internal bleeding died due to lack of a phial of
vitamin K, which would have cost less than ?1.
* One doctor in a Baghdad hospital recently tried to
save the life of a child with a drip, but he lacked a
sterile needle for a child and the child died. The lack
of rubber surgical gloves, which cost 3.5p a pair, has
hugely increased the risk of infections.
* Premature babies are crammed three to an incubator,
when an incubator can be found. An incubator costs about
* Only 50 per cent of the pre-war total of doctors
remain in Iraq. The US clearout of Ba'ath party members
sympathetic to Saddam Hussein after the invasion has led
to a breakdown of health administration.
* The British doctors are calling for guarantees of
safety to be given to all medical staff in Iraq by the
US and British forces. Above all there is a need to stop
the militias killing doctors and nurses.
* Hospitals have been bombed and ambulances shot at.
Helicopters could be laid on by the US and UK to ferry
cases to Jordan, Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia for
treatment of acute trauma and disease.
* Doctors are calling on Britain and America to restore
at least $2bn (?1bn) of $14bn that has gone missing
since the invasion. Part of this sum, lost in corruption
or to militias, was earmarked for hospitals.
* Up to 260,000 children may have died since the 2003
invasion of Iraq.
© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited